The BnF

Prints and Photographs Department

The big horse. Albrecht Dürer's print. 1505
The Prints and Photographs Department holds the world’s biggest picture collection, unique for its wealth of material on past centuries, and a living museum of contemporary art. It houses more than 15 million graphic materials of a wide variety of types: drawings – in particular of architecture -, prints, photographs, posters, labels, postcards, fabric samples, playing cards, etc.
The Department also holds an important collection of documentary sources in the field: books, periodicals, sale catalogues...
Numerous exhibitions are organized to highlight the collections. A wide range of news about old and contemporary engravings is collected and disseminated in the Nouvelles de l’Estampe magazine published by the Department.

Collections of the Prints and Photographs Department

Edgar Degas´s print for Germinal of Émile Zola.

Edgar Degas's print for Germinal of Émile Zola.

Each year, the Department of Prints and Photographs collects around 25,000 pieces of the following:

  • works by French engravers and photographers
  • the best of foreign output
  • a representative sample of domestic output of mass-produced pictures (posters, postcards, religious and incidental images, and commercial images)
Red Fuji in a bright interval. Gaifû kaisei (Thirty six views of the Mount Fuji, 2). Wood engraving of Hokusai

Red Fuji in a bright interval. Gaifû kaisei (Thirty six views of the Mount Fuji, 2). Wood engraving of Hokusai

BnF’s collections of prints, built up from the 17th century, bring together works by ancient and contemporary French and foreign engravers: Dürer, Callot, Rembrandt, Goya, Hokusaï, Picasso, Jim Dine, etc.

The Department of Prints and Photographs houses all works achieved by the most famous European engravers. It also holds outstanding prints of engraved masterpieces and very numerous drawings, whether preparatory works or illustrations of an engraver's activity.

The collections of French engravings continue to grow with the addition of works by contemporary artists and items produced by printing shops (URDLA, Arte-Maeght, Linard, etc.).

Park of Saint-Cloud, 1909-1911. Eugène Atget

Park of Saint-Cloud, 1909-1911. Eugène Atget

In the XIXth century, the collections were expanded via the addition of work by photographers from studio collections and press agencies, testifying of the history of photography and photographic practices: they include work by Nadar, Le Gray, Disdéri, Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Diane Arbus, Mario Giacomelli, Manuel Alvarez-Bravo, etc.
The collections also cover all types of media used in the distribution of artistic and documentary photography: illustrated books, postcards, etc.

Vin Mariani. Jules Chéret’s poster. 1894

Vin Mariani. Jules Chéret’s poster. 1894

The Posters, most of which have been added to the Prints and Photographs department under the legal deposit scheme, may be either anonymous or created by renowned artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Mucha, or Cassandre.

The department also offers an extensive library collection on techniques and the historical and artistic development of prints, photography, posters and images.

Self-portrait with Saskia. Rembrandt. 1636

Self-portrait with Saskia. Rembrandt. 1636

The most precious pieces of the collections are housed in the Reserve:

  • travel boxes (15th century) with prophylactic images
  • 15th century printings by anonymous masters, incunabula, primitive Italian painters
  • drawings and paintings by Dürer
  • 'first states' of a print made by Rembrandt (900 pieces)
  • clichés-verre of the Barbizon school
  • sketchbooks belonging to Degas, Bonnard, Gromaire, Hélion
  • important collection of engravings by Japanese masters
  • Photo album belonging to Delacroix
  • Guernesey albums (Victor Hugo's family)

To be noted

  • The department is home to the editorial staff of Nouvelles de l’estampe, the journal of the National Committee for French Engraving (Comité national de la Gravure française).
  • The department organizes the Prix Lacourière, awarded every two years to a copperplate engraver aged 45 or under in the year of entry.
  • The department is associated with two prizes awarded by the “Gens d’images” association: the Prix Nadar for a piece of photographic work and the Prix Niepce for the work of a photographer aged 35 or under and resident in France.

Since 1994, the department has housed the Société française de Photographie.


le règlement du prix Lacourière 2014 [fichier .pdf – 65 Ko – 05/12/11 – 1 p.]

History of the department

L´aveugle et son chien. Jacques Callot. 1622-1623

L'aveugle et son chien. Jacques Callot. 1622-1623

The Cabinet des Estampes was formed in 1667 when the King’s Library acquired 120,000 prints brought together by Michel de Marolles. From 1648 onwards, Jacques Dupuy, guardian of the Royal Library, extended the compulsory deposit scheme, introduced for books in 1537, to prints. However, under Colbert, only a few hundred units were collected under this legal arrangement.

“Estampes de privilège” were deposited from 1672 onwards (these were authoritative deeds granting permission to print and protecting copyright).

In 1720, the Cabinet became a department of the King’s Library. Its collections grew rapidly, absorbing the considerable portrait collection of Nicolas Clément, a guardian of the Cabinet (1712), followed by that of Roger de Gaignières (1716), the Marquis of Béringhen’s collection of prints by masters (1731), the topographical and portrait collection of the farmer-general, Lallemant de Betz (1753), and the history collection of Pierre Fevret de Fontette (1773). Revolutionary confiscations added the Minister Bertin’s Chinese collections and collections from various congregations, including in particular that of the Abbey of Saint-Victor, prints brought together by the Jesuits of Cologne, and the personal collections of the King, the Queen, Monsieur and Madame Victoire, and numerous émigrés.

The library continued to grow at a sustained pace in the 19th century, through both the legal deposit scheme and the addition of a large number of private collections (e.g. the historical collections of Hennin and the Baron de Vinck and the artistic collections of Moreau-Nélaton and Atherton Curtis), and in the 20th century via the addition of contemporary works (by Duchamp, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Matisse, Hélion, Baselitz, Sam Francis, Barry Flanagan, Antoni Tàpies, etc.).

From 1851 onwards, photographers began to voluntarily deposit their output (the legal deposit scheme for photographs was not introduced until 1925).

The department has been based in the hôtel Tubeuf at the Richelieu Library (Site Richelieu) since 1946.

For more info

History of the BnF

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

See also


Sylvie Aubenas
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